Sixteen miles in, six-and-a-half hours from shouldering my pack, twenty pounds or so back at the Hannegan Pass trailhead earlier that morning. It was just about four in the afternoon. Another mile to go until Whatcom. I had to command my legs to move up over the overgrown trail, hot in the three pm sun. And then, just below the pass I hit the sub-alpine zone. A beautiful scene of Brush Creek meandering and cascading through open heather meadows sprinkled with pinks and purples contrasted by greens and greys.

I was home.

It smelled amazing. A certain alpine freshness. I found the campground and a spot on which to toss my pack before heading up the last couple hundred feet and quarter-mile through heather to the pass for a bit of a break. I crested it with views east into the Little Beaver Valley and Whatcom, enormous, rising from the rocky ridge that led south. Challenger was blocked from view. I’d climb higher in a bit to see it. And then Luna – the loneliest mountain – from even higher.

Right now, writing this in my tent by headlamp, Moby on headphones is mixing with the sounds of the night outside. The moon is bathing this alpine basin around the Tapto Lakes above Whatcom Pass washing out all but the Big Dipper. Cassiopea. Tired. Long day. Wandered around the basin away from where I set up my small camp to check the place out after dinner while the sun set behind Shuksan and Ruth to the west seemingly very, very far away. I had passed by Ruth earlier that morning on the way over Hannegan.

Am looking forward to sleep.

Have on my Sacred Socks cozy-warm wool but it’s crazy-warm outside. I don’t think it’s even supposed to dip much below sixty tonight this second weekend of September. 9:23 pm. I’ll probably try to sleep and write more tomorrow. Have all day to myself up here before I head back the eighteen-plus miles to the trailhead. Hoping for clouds or some beautiful light like we had on Sourdough two weeks ago or Cache Col two weeks before that but no such luck tonight and not really expecting it for tomorrow.

This trip is just for a glimpse.

Challenger ©Thom Schroeder

A glimpse east into the crazy-wild Little Beaver Valley. A glimpse of the crazy-remote Challenger. And Easy Ridge. And Whatcom. The Pickets. Finally.

Morning now. The sun was late in getting to me camped here under this ridge to the east. But now it is here and I have already finished my essential morning cup of coffee with the company of the sound of a snowmelt stream nearby. Sitting on granite warm in the sun at six-thousand feet. Already had the thought of swimming in one of the lakes – crazy for September. A slight breeze feels heavenly. I can see Shuksan towering over everything to the west. And Ruth in front of it. Whatcom of course and the whole of Easy Ridge spread out to the south. Next year.

Had some lunch and then climbed back over the ridge holding the Tapto basin for an absolutely incredible view of Challenger and the Little Beaver valley. I sit down now on some lichen-stained rock and pause to listen. The monumental cascades of waterfalls coursing down deep into the valley make a constant muted roar miles away. I can see pockets of glacier remnants clinging to life on the ice-scoured north side of Challenger. There’s a lake even tucked under the sheer shadowed wall where the Challenger glacier stops abruptly somehow seemingly defying gravity. As far east through the valley as I can, see the landscape mellows. Ross Lake is hidden from view but I can make out Desolation Peak in the distance.

The breeze has mostly disappeared and I am reminded of how out here only the elemental matters. A breeze to ward off both the the heat of the sun  and last of the bugs before the autumn chill drapes itself over these mountains bringing with it the winter snows. No sound but that distant roar of waterfalls.

Complete peace.

©Thom Schroeder

I think back to the hike yesterday that brought me here. And about wilderness like this in general I guess. There are two other tents back down among the Tapto Lakes. I saw one guy head out on his way this morning. Then another. Not sure to where. Then silence. And still. Silence.

What if there was a car ferry up Ross Lake to the Little Beaver Valley? Or worse a road around it, maybe turning the wild lake. presently empty of motorized boats, into another place of a Lake Tahoe sort. Then say a road up Little Beaver smack up to where the insane geography of it finally impedes civilized travel. Then a parking lot maybe visible all the way up here above Whatcom Pass. And from that spot, once crazy-wild wilderness, maybe an Alps-like tram up here to the pass, so that everyone can see this wild-silent splendor that is this place, buried deep in one of the wildest spots in the lower forty-eight. No effort required.

Except then it wouldn’t be silent.

It would certainly be more accessible. The seventeen miles in from Hannegan was probably a breeze compared to the eighteen mile easterly approach up the Little Beaver. Granted it doesn’t need to be done in seven hours but regardless, it’s a very long haul to heave pack up and over two passes. The ferry/car/tram option would be so much easier. This place today would instead be thronged with people all clambering for the view. After all it is mind-blowingly spectacular.

But no, thankfully, that other option is not yet an option.

And so I sit here on this ridge in shorts and shirtsleeves and flip flops where trees give way to rock a slight breeze completely and totally by myself. The shadows on Challenger lengthen and swallow up the tiny lake I spied earlier. The folds in the snow on the glacier become more apparent. The light softens. And all of this to only that distant sound of cascades soon to silence with the coming of winter.

I am enthralled by silence.

In awe of this glimpse into such a wild place. And grateful to those who maybe sat here at this same spot and saw a wilderness worth preserving. I realize that in my staunch defense of wilderness preservation I also know not everyone can sit here and gaze and gasp at the sight of the Challenger Glacier or immerse themselves in this sort of quiet. And searching for an answer or maybe more a justification I decide that is what makes it special.

That those people who just drive the cross-state highway and pull off at the Diablo Lake overlook maybe only do so to stretch tired legs and point and say ‘look at that mountain!’ (‘that mountain’ being the six-thousand-foot relief of the north face of Colonial – a fantastically-wild climb). They are content to take a photo of Diablo’s glacial-silted turquoise waters and continue on their way. Sure they’ve seen something but I tend to think that they have not connected. There is no effort. Just a photo op.

Morning Light ©Thom Schroeder

So with no effort it can be argued ultimately has any benefit been gained?

Will they rush home and phone their legislators to support and save wild lands? Maybe. Not likely though I’d be willing to bet. But the one who treks up the mountain passes through fields of heather and wildflowers and granite far-removed with everything they need on their back, grueling at times, blisters maybe sore muscles for sure, to finally arrive seventeen miles and hours and hours even maybe days away later to throw down a pack.

Sit. Stare. And take note of the silence of wilderness. Glimpse into its core. Spend a night or two or three or more sleeping out under the Milky Way. Open a tent fly up to the sheer vastness of trees or meadows or mountains or skies. Watch an icefall crash on a glacier across a valley as old as time. What can they learn? Take away? Much likely more than the passerby, numb down there just winding around the bends of a highway as it contours the same landscape those who hike can feel inching across it by boot.

Going now to scout some tarns or streams or rocks looking for a good foreground to strike against the incredibleness of Challenger and some photographs that cannot possibly capture the sense of this scene. But I’ll still try. Not sure what the evening will bring but know it will be spectacular. I’ll be dying to be done as I crawl back up Hannegan on my way out tomorrow. Then down. Down down down to the trailhead. But still grateful to have been here. Still in awe at such a place. Still reminded this was just a glimpse and I will most definitely – most definitely – be back.

Self Portrait ©Thom Schroeder


Trip stats on Whatcom Pass

:: 17 miles one-way to Whatcom Pass (2000′ gain to Hannegan, 2600′ loss down to the Chilliwack crossing, 3000′ gain back up to Whatcom Pass); another 1.5 miles to Tapto Lakes with an additional 1000′ gain/300′ loss; total time from trailhead to Tapto Lakes = 7 hours

:: But … the ranger back in Glacier apparently thought I was insane for attempting Tapto Lakes in a day confessing she normally takes three; to that end, there are lots of fly-infested camps along the Chilliwack buried in old-growth forest (not that there’s anything wrong with that) for those less-inclined to attempt the entire trip in one day (umm, not that there’s anything wrong with that either)

:: The cable car crossing of the Chilliwack was awesome and I highly recommend it despite hearing that there is a log draped over the river downstream at the ford

:: There were signs of bears at Whatcom and down below at Graybeal camps but I never actually saw one

:: I may have become slightly delirious on the way back down the Hennegan trail through the Ruth Creek Valley long-ago clearcut by the good ol’ troopers of the US Forest Service so that all hikers now unfortunate to come down (or even more unfortunate to go up) in the afternoon get blasted by the sun. No relief from what should have been a pristine old-growth forest hike but now just endless clumps of maple and alder and other such brush; my advice = head up/down early or late but never in the middle of a warm, sunny day

:: The north fork of the Nooksack River (which can be reached at the picnic spot on the Hannegan road just before WA-542) makes a prime spot in which to dunk head, arms and feet


Leave a Reply